Sake and food pairing – a simple approach to a big problem

Sake and food pairing – a simple approach to a big problem

Why you don’t order sake At a recent dinner at Toko, I looked around and saw that most people were drinking wine or cocktails. Not that there is anything wrong with drinking wine, or cocktails, but Toko has the best sake list in town. It is simply a crime not to take advantage of that! I think there is a two-part explanation of the reluctance to order sake. First of all, most people outside Japan know absolutely nothing about sake (the state of things I am trying to change). Secondly, those who do know a little, still need proper advice on choosing a particular bottle . Even if a diner has enjoyed sake in the past, they will not always know many sake brands to confidently pick a bottle to match their food selection. Who wants to end up with a (typically expensive) bottle that ruins the equally expensive dinner? So what is the answer? Unfortunately, we don’t have formally trained sake sommeliers in Sydney – yet.  The onus is, of course, on restaurants to train their staff. A few sommeliers have come to my classes, so hopefully Sydney diners are getting some good sake advice – in a handful of (expensive) places. But before a sustained, industry-wide change happens, it is up to diners to make a confident selection. Restaurants could make it easier by simply reorganising menus. Don’t list sakes by grade (junmai/junmai ginjō/ginjō etc) but divide into flavour profiles – light and clean, light and aromatic, full bodied and dry, full bodied and sweet, and so on. But that’s a whole other topic, for another day. For all of you who would like to drink sake with your dinner, but don’t know where to start, I have a few basic rules. Sake is very food friendly. The Japanese say “sake doesn’t fight food”. It is 5-10 times lower in acidity than wine, and has no iron, so a lot of sake is milder and cleaner on the palate. Sure, there are exceptions. Aged sake is quite heavy and sweet and viscous, and is usually offered as a digestive or a dessert “wine”. Unless you want to enjoy it throughout your meal. Rules are made to be broken!   Sake Matching Rules   1. Like for like One of the popular approaches to pairing sake with food is to match “like for like”. Sake whose flavour profile is similar to food will enhance the flavour of both: Light, less fragrant sake (think a dry ginjō from the northern prefectures) sake will go well with light food – vegetables, sashimi, oysters, citrus-flavoured dishes. Light and fragrant sake, exemplified by many daiginjō, matches well with equally fragrant and light food – herb salads, vietnamese rice paper rolls, scallops, crab, white fish, fruit. Full-bodied, full-flavoured but less fragrant sake...

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How sake is made – the brewing process

How sake is made – the brewing process

It is time to shine the spotlight on the mystery of sake brewing. When you, the lover of sake, understand each step of sake brewing, all the technical terms, like muroka and nama, will become clear. I also hope that seeing the complexity and precision of sake making will make you appreciate this fascinating brew even more!             1. Rice comes first   Sake brewing starts with rice. Long before the kura (brewery) owner assembles his brewing team for the season, the rice farmers plant foundations of next season’s sake. Sake rice – sakamai – is different from table rice. The stalks are taller, the grains are bigger, and it is harder to grow. Rice affects sake flavour, and breweries try their hardest to secure the required amount of chosen rice variety. They don’t always succeed. Once rice is deliverd to kura, it is milled to remove the outer layer of proteins and fats, and to expose the starch centre. High starch content encourages fermentation, and fats and proteins can give sake off flavours. The degree of milling – normally between 30 and 65% for premium sake – dictates the resulting grade of sake. The more is removed, the higher the grade, the finer the sake. Sake milling is done at the brewery, or at a specialised milling plant. After milling, brewers leave rice sitting for a couple of weeks, to absorb ambient moisture . Once it is ready to use, it is washed to remove milling powder still clinging to it, carefully soaked to absorb a little more water, and finally steamed. Steaming is done on the morning of the first day of the brewing cycle. Once rice is steamed and ready to go, it all begins!   2. Koji – the essential sake brewing step   Sake brewers have a motto: “Ichi: koji, ni: moto, san: zukuri”. It translates as “first koji, then the yeast starter, then fermentation”, denoting the order of importance of each in sake making. Koji mould (Aspergillus Oryzae) is a friendly fungus that has been used to ferment food in Asian cooking for centuries. Most people have eaten food made with koji mould: miso, soy sauce, tempeh. Its role in sake making is to produce enzymes that will convert starches in rice into sugars. This is crucial. The sake yeasts cannot process the long carbohydrate chains of rice grains. Something needs to break them down into simple sugars. In beer brewing, that job is done by grains themselves during the malting stage. Grains naturally contain enzymes that can start the starch to sugar conversion. Sake rice, however, is milled, and all such anzymes are removed. Once the rice has been...

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Dancyu magazine’s top sake of 2014

Dancyu magazine’s top sake of 2014

Dancyu is a cult foodie magazine in Japan. Each year, the editors put together a special Sake edition, where, among other things, they compile lists of top sake. 2014 edition has several lists of best of the best, around several themes: modern, traditional, local, food-friendly, neo-classic. I plan to go through all of them, but tonight I give you the top 7 modern sake – according to Dancyu!  (My sensei John Gauntner thinks they are spot-on).  Juyondai, Nabeshima, Dassai are all on this list – no surprises there! I wish the entire lineup was waiting for me in the fridge. Alas, in Australia, we only have Dassai 23.   1. Jūyondai tokubetsu honjōzō    2. Jikon Tokubetsu Junmai   3.  Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmai Ginjō   4. Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjō   5. Nabeshima Tokubetsu Junmai   6. Ippaku Suisei Tokubetsu Junmai   7. Hiroki Tokubetsu...

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Top 10 sake brands in Australia

Top 10 sake brands in Australia

So, I have created a few sake lists…but those lists were not really Australia-specific. Here’s the top sake brands you can buy and drink in Australia right now. We might not have the incredible variety the sake drinkers enjoy in Japan, or even US, but we do have some real gems! In no particular order:             1. Dassai – a sleek marketing machine of brand, Dassai has established its presence at top restaurants all over the world. Aromatic, delicate and delicious.  Dassai 50 is my favourite.  I’ve seen it on the menu at Izakaya Masuya and  Toko in Sydney. Plenty of other places probably have it too. 2. Hakkaisan –slightly heavier than typical Niigata style but very clean and crisp. Very popular in both Japan and overseas. 3. Kozaemon – a popular brand in Gifu, exclusively imported by the Sake restaurant.  Drink it at their Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane branches. 4. Kubota – anther clean and smooth representative of Niigata prefecture style, very popular.  Masuya, Toko, Sokyo, Azuma all have it on their menus – I am sure it can be found elsewhere, too. 5. Nanbu Bijin (Southern Beauty) – elegant, aromatic, exquisite.  Toko, Sokyo. 6. Eikun – typical example of Kyoto elegance. “Ichigin” is their proudest  representative, expensive and splendid. Worth the price tag. I have seen it for sale online, just a quick Google away. 7. Nagaragawa – they play healing music to the sake while it’s brewing.  The result is beautiful indeed. Chef’s Armoury are the exclusive importers. Smart move! Get it online or in their Melbourne store.   8. Nabeshima – very popular and demand outstrips supply in Japan. We are quite fortunate to have it in Australia. Pop into Annandale cellars (or their online store), or dine in style at Mr Wong. This is the importer Black Market’s bestselling sake, so many a trendy restaurant in capital cities will feature it on their wine/sake lists. 9. Otokoyama – a well-brewed, inexpensive, hugely popular brand from Hokkaido. Order it at Mr Wong, the cheapest sake on the menu. Available online. 10. Tatsuriki – sake from the famous brewing area of Hyogo that has been winning plenty of critical acclaim during its 95 year history. Definitely one of the top brands in Japan but is currently flying under the radar in Australia.  Buy it online. Want to read more about sake? I am the official Australian reseller of Sake Today magazine, the first ever English-language publication dedicated solely to...

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How to buy sake – the ultimate 5 step guide for beginners

How to buy sake – the ultimate 5 step guide for beginners

Learn to shop for sake in 5 simple steps How many times have you looked at sake on display in a store and walked away? It’s just so…foreign. Everyone knows a thing or two about wine. Here, in Australia, even the most staunch wine avoiders can rattle off the list of common styles – merlot, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay…champagne! We all know something about wine. When it comes to sake, however, the vast majority of people know nothing. Nothing at all. That doesn’t mean people don’t want to know, interest in sake is exploding all over the world. The information vacuum is starting to fill up – now you can buy books about sake, read blogs about sake, and even buy the world’s first magazine about sake. Still, it takes time to read and process all that information, and in the end, the labels are still in Japanese. What to do? Well, you can read on! I’ve written the world’s first “How to Buy Sake” guide, and I promise you,  after reading it, you will be able to walk into that bottle shop and confidently choose the bottle you are likely to enjoy. Step 1 – Understand sake grades The grade of sake is the single most important bit of information you can work with when choosing sake. Sake grades are not some arbitrary designation by a brewer. Although once they were! Now, grades of sake are defined by the Japanese government and breweries must strictly adhere to every rule. So, what makes a grade of sake? Two things. Ingredients and rice milling rate (seimaibuai, pronounced say-my-boo-eye). Sake is made of rice, which is polished (milled) at the beginning of production. The milling is needed to remove outer layers of rice that contain protein and fats.  The more is removed, the  higher the starch content of raw materials. This seems a bit counter-intuitive, as we are trained to think of proteins and fats in grains as nutritionally useful. Proteins and fats, though, cannot be digested by the sake yeasts. Yeast needs sugars (converted from starch) to work with. The outer layers of rice, if left in place, will stunt fermentation process and contribute a lot of “off” flavour to sake. So, simply, the more rice is polished, the more proteins and fats are stripped away, the more refined the flavour will be. Ingredients are the second part of the grade puzzle. All premium sake can only contain rice, water, special kōji mould (used in food fermentation in Asia) and sake yeast. In some instances, a small amount of distilled alcohol is added at the end of the brewing process, just before sake is pressed and stored for maturation. That is all, no preservatives,...

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My top 5 sake

My top 5 sake

Top sake brands – how many? I have already written about (an arbitrary) list of current top 5 sake in Japan.  I say arbitrary because there are hundreds of stellar sake brands. Sake brewers pour so much effort, precision, and love into their craft, more often than not, they end up making something delicious. There are about 1250 active breweries in Japan, and John Gauntner, the father of modern-day sake appreciation, recommends about 400 sake brands. That means one in three breweries produce something worth seeking out. In the presence of so much great sake, how do particular brands become super-popular and end up in various “top 10” lists? There is, of course, marketing. More importantly, much sake is still brewed using very traditional and labour-intensive methods, and its production cannot be easily increased. Owners might simply be unwilling to move the brewery into a bigger building. They might not want to move away from the source of water, or might be worried that the change of ambience will effect the quality of sake. They might not want to invest millions into very expensive equipment. Limited supply creates cult following. Most of the time, though, their reputation is well deserved. Slava’s top 5 sake Last month, I tried over a hundred sake. Most of that epic effort happened while I was studying with John Gauntner. As you can imagine, attempting such a concentrated tasting over a short period of time has a potential to tire out one’s palate. The brands I am including below are the ones that cut through the noise instantly and powerfully. So, I give you: 1. Isojiman Junmai Ginjō.   I have already included it in my “Top 5 sake in Japan” list. The reputation is well deserved indeed. The brew had the clarity of cold mountain air. I am not making these descriptions up, these were my actual notes from the evening! I might or might not have imbibed enough of great sake to feel more lyrical than usual that night. It began with the delicate fragrance of white peaches.  On the palate, it was fragrant, sweet, elegant, and smoothly resolved with a somewhat dry finish. Brewed with precision. Superb.               2. Sugata Junmai Ginjō I wondered if I should include Sugata in my top 5. Most likely, this sake will never make it to Australia, or anywhere else. The sake we drank was also a shinshu (new sake, not yet matured for the obligatory 6 months) muroka nama genshu. Unfiltered, unpasteurised, undiluted. What are the chances of seeing it in Australia? Probably slim to none. Unless we ask the Black Market Sake guys nicely. That brew, however,  was pure joy...

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